Third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Reflection: The reign of God


Some people approach the New Testament as if it were a dogmatic history recounting what was, what ought to be and offering a privileged preview to all that is to come. If they’re too fundamentalist, they’ll seriously think about plucking out their eye (Matthew 18:9) — or at least strive to never look at anything that might be tempting. (In old-time religious life, sisters and brothers were admonished to keep “modesty of the eyes,” an avoidance of looking at “worldly” things — especially members of the opposite sex.)

In our day, we interpret Scripture in its historical and cultural context, realizing that not even our Scriptures are free from images of God that reflect our frailties, saying more about us than about God.

As we hear a bit about Jonah today, we’re aware that his story isn’t an historical account of a fellow who spent a while in a whale, went on to a successful preaching career and finally became furious with God for not wreaking vengeance on a sinful but repentant people. Actually, we can read the Book of Jonah as the comic book of the Bible, a tale to make us laugh — until we recognize ourselves in the ridiculous conclusion of the story. 

Today’s selection from Jonah focuses only on his successful call for conversion, ending with the statement that God “repented of the evil that he had threatened.” This statement needs to be understood in context. In the variety of images of God we find in Scripture, we hear about God as everything from a tender mother (Numbers 11:12) to a God of dreadful vengeance (Psalm 137: 7-9, Nahum 1:2). Our ancestors in the faith, like many of us, projected their expectations on God and counted on God to unleash divine power to destroy the unrighteous (a term often referring to their enemies). That’s quite a different image from Jesus’ description of his father who cares if a sparrow falls and waits patiently for a wayward child. A vengeful image of God reflects nothing of the compassion Jesus consistently demonstrated. 

We hear something quite different with Mark’s portrayal of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Careful reading shows us that the only words Jesus actually preaches in the first chapters of Mark’s Gospel are, “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the good news.” From Mark 1 to 4, Jesus calls disciples, heals people and converses with them; he also gets into arguments with religious authorities, warning them that they are in danger of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. But through all of that, the only actual preaching we hear are those 20 words cited above. 

We might say that those 20 words referring to fulfillment, the reign of God, repentance and belief in good news are the core message of the entire Gospel. Everything else that Jesus said and did demonstrate the meaning of that message, emphasizing “repent and believe,” two words which might ultimately signify the same thing. Jesus’ call to repentance, metanoia, invited people to take on a new mindset. 

Representing his Father, Jesus didn’t focus on sin. He urged people to believe that the reigning of God, a world moving unstoppably toward unity in love, was happening in their midst. In calling them to metanoia, Jesus invited others to see what he saw — that the world was on the way to a future in which God would be all in all — and that future was already appearing. 

That message was so attractive that people began to follow him. Many continued to watch him and listen to him, gradually getting caught up in the contagious vision he offered. A chosen few accepted the invitation to throw their lot in with him and join his cause. They entered into a process of learning, of discipleship, in the course of which they found themselves transformed and giving their lives in imitation of Jesus. The more this happened, the more the announcement of the reign of God became a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Jesus’ announcement of the nearness of the reign of God was not one and done. The reign of God describes a web of relationships that continually grows, drawing more and more people into unity with God and neighbor — and with all of creation. Each generation is invited to develop that web in the ways most appropriate to their context, accepting the task of adapting the Gospel message so that it remains both faithful and relevant. 

Today, Christ and all our ancestors in the faith invite us to adopt the mindset that expects to see that “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand.”

In the first reading, we get the cartoon-like story of Jonah warning the people of the once-largest city in the world that they have 40 days to repent or be destroyed.

Then, we hear Paul tell the Corinthians to live as if time were running out.

Finally, Mark tells us that Jesus began his preaching saying, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.”

Today’s Scriptures call us to take a good look at our times so we can make a Gospel-inspired response.

Jesus began his preaching after John the Baptist’s arrest. Although it was obviously a time of danger, he interpreted it, as what was known in his day, as a time of kairos, the opportune time, a moment when God’s activity on earth was reaching a peak. Jesus summarized it all by saying, “The kingdom of God is at hand.”

The concept of kingdom of God is elusive. Jesus talked about it in parables and analogies that described its great, contagious energy. Rather than being a place like a country or even a grouping like a church, we can describe it as a new state of mind that engenders a new way of living. It grows through a web of relationships in which people experience loving union with one another and with God.

Jesus came enthusiastically inviting people into that new way of life. He showed them what it looked like through his interactions with others. He taught his disciples to pray for its coming, and he himself prayed for it during the last supper saying, “May all be one, Father, as you are in me.” He knew that once people experienced it, they could never settle for less.

In order to be a part of that kingdom, Jesus called for repentance and belief. For Jesus, repentance referred to a thoroughgoing change of mentality and a commitment to the vision he was preaching. Unlike the king of Nineveh who demanded that the people fast and put on sackcloth and ashes, Jesus invited people to care for one another and feast together — on an ongoing basis.

The kingdom of God is just as near today as on that day when Jesus came to Galilee preaching about it. We still are called to repent and believe.

The Second Vatican Council teaches us that in furthering Christ’s mission we all share in “the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (Gaudium et Spes). That means that we take Jesus’ preaching and apply it to the world. To read the signs of our times, we have to pause and contemplate our epoch.

In “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis calls us to “review those questions which are troubling us today and which we can no longer sweep under the carpet.” He says that by doing this we “dare to turn what is happening in the world into our own personal suffering and thus discover what each of us can do about it”.

Peter, Andrew, James and John were called to leave their boats for the sake of the kingdom. If we wish to understand and implement Jesus’ vision today, we must pause from our frenetic activity to contemplate our own reality, to cultivate what Francis calls “serene attentiveness” and gratitude to God. Only then will we be able to perceive how, as Francis says, the universe is unfolding in God. This is our kairos, the only moment of history we have, and it is in our hands.

First Reading

(Jonah 3: 1-5, 10)

The word of the LORD came to Jonah, saying:
“Set out for the great city of Nineveh,
and announce to it the message that I will tell you.”
So Jonah made ready and went to Nineveh,
according to the LORD’S bidding.
Now Nineveh was an enormously large city;
it took three days to go through it.
Jonah began his journey through the city,
and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing,
“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed, “
when the people of Nineveh believed God;
they proclaimed a fast
and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way,
he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them;
he did not carry it out.

Responsorial Psalm

(Psalm 25: 4-5, 6-7, 8-9)

Second Reading

(1 Corinthians 7: 29-31)

I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out.
From now on, let those having wives act as not having them,
those weeping as not weeping,
those rejoicing as not rejoicing,
those buying as not owning, 
those using the world as not using it fully.
For the world in its present form is passing away.


(Mark 1: 14-20)

After John had been arrested,
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
“This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

As he passed by the Sea of Galilee,
he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea;
they were fishermen.
Jesus said to them,
“Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
Then they abandoned their nets and followed him.
He walked along a little farther
and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John.
They too were in a boat mending their nets.
Then he called them.
So they left their father Zebedee in the boat
along with the hired men and followed him.